Structural Complexity In Forests Improves Carbon Capture

Forests in the eastern United States that are structurally complex — meaning the arrangement of vegetation is varied throughout the physical space — sequester more carbon, according to a new study in Ecology, a journal of the Ecological Society of America.

The study by researchers at the University of Connecticut, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Purdue University, demonstrates for the first time that a forest’s structural complexity is a better predictor of carbon sequestration potential than tree species diversity.

“Now there is a recognition of the importance of how the leaf area is arrayed in three dimensions,” says study author Robert T. Fahey, assistant professor of forest ecology and management at UConn. “The variability of the arrangement of that leaf area within the canopy can be important in terms of forest productivity as well as resilience to different types of disturbances and stressors.”

Understanding how forest structure drives carbon sequestration is important for ecologists, climate modelers, and forest managers, who are working on ways to mitigate climate change, says Fahey.

Carbon sequestration is the process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide is taken up by trees, grasses and other plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in soil and plant biomass, such as tree trunks, branches, foliage and roots. Carbon sequestration in forests and wood helps offset sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, such as deforestation, forest fires and fossil-fuel emissions, according to the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Why are structurally complex forests better at carbon sequestration? Chris Gough of Virginia Commonwealth University suggests that multiple layers of leaves may optimize how efficiently light is used to power carbon sequestration in wood.

“Carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, is taken up by trees through the process of photosynthesis and some of that ‘fixed’ carbon is allocated to wood,” says Gough. “Our study shows that more complex forests are better at taking up and sequestering carbon in wood and, in doing so, they leave less carbon dioxide in the air.”

“In other words, forests that are structurally variable and contain multiple layers of leaves outperform structurally simple forests with a single concentrated band of vegetation,” he says.

To conduct the study, the researchers used a combination of their own data, as well as data from the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. NEON is generating long-term, publicly available data for different ecosystems in the U.S., with the aim of understanding decades long ecological processes.

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